Navigating the hellish landscape known as 2020 felt a lot like tackling a tsunami with a boogie board made of lead in shark infested waters while covered in chum. Fortunately for all of us and our collective sanity, 2020 delivered the cinematic goods, regardless if we had to watch them in our living rooms.
Throughout the year, movies were where I turned when no amount of therapy or emotional purging could help me feel some semblance of balance. The difficult (see: correct) decision made by many studios to allow new releases a home on VOD gave so the opportunity for many to keep the spirit of new cinema alive, safely, and for that I am eternally grateful. I’ll be the first to admit that my top 10 list is less about films that I feel are worthy of golden statues of nude men or the earth on a pedestal (although there are plenty that deserve it) and more about the films that kept me from breaking down in a cold sweat of existential dread—at least for a few hours.
Special Shout-Outs: She Dies Tomorrow, Host, Tremors 7: Shrieker Island, Sonic the Hedgehog and Deep Blue Sea 3--movies that were exactly what I needed when I watched them, and brought me a great deal of cathartic relief without a breath of irony in that statement. Haters be damned.
Haley Bennett is an absolute marvel as Hunter, a timid newlywed feeling powerless in her marriage and in life. As a means to gain a sense of power and control, Hunter begins swallowing tiny, inanimate objects. Unlike the exploitative nature of something like My Strange Addiction, Hunter’s increasingly compulsive behavior is presented as an unhealthy albeit legitimate means of gaining body autonomy in the face of growing dysmorphia and as a response to unresolved childhood trauma. There are those that have argued that this film doesn't qualify as "horror," but Swallow has continued to haunt me long after watching.
9. Yes, God, Yes
Karen Maine’s debut feature quietly dropped on Netflix with little fanfare, likely because a movie about a young Catholic school girl discovering her own libido may be deemed “too risky” for average audiences. Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) is an absolute gem as Alice as tries to navigate the conflicting worlds between what she’s been taught to believe as a Catholic, and the raging hormonal messages from her body that are impossible to ignore. It’s an incredibly smart comedy that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt othered by religious institutions for things beyond your control.
8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
This film almost didn’t make my list, but at the time of writing this blurb, Ohio (where I live) just made it a law that any abortion remains must have a proper burial or be cremated, and now I cannot stop thinking about how much this film impacted me. It shouldn’t be so difficult to exist as a teenage girl in America, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always perfectly captures just how tough it can be. When a young woman realizes she’s pregnant, she enlists the help of her cousin to accompany her on a trip to New York so she can have an abortion. This is a film that could have so easily fallen into overused tropes, but instead paints a genuinely realistic portrait of two friends just doing what they have to do as best as they know how.
7. David Byrne’s American Utopia
If anyone was going to knock Hamilton out of the running for the best musical of the year, it was going to be David Byrne. The iconic frontman of The Talking Heads joins forces with Spike Lee to present a wholly unique experience from Byrne’s concept album turned stage show turned masterpiece film. It's expertly staged and Lee's filming style truly elevates everything Byrne is presenting. After everything this year, sometimes you just need to sing out and remind yourself that this must be the place.
6. You Cannot Kill David Arquette
David Arquette is known by most film fans for his lovable roles in genre favorites, but for a generation of wrestling fans, he’s known more as “the worst WCW World Heavyweight Champion in history.” A lifelong fan of the greatest sport on earth (don’t @ me), Arquette sets out decades later to rejoin the squared circle and earn respect from the fanbase that sees him as nothing more than a gimmick champion that devalued the sacred big gold belt. An unlikely underdog story about redemption, you can't help but feel inspired by Arquette's dedication to righting a 20-year-old wrong. It’s a moving documentary about tenacity, passion, paying your dues, and realizing that it's never too late to follow your dreams.
Horror comedies and teen girl movies are my absolute two favorite subgenres, so it makes perfect sense that the Freaky Friday meets Friday the 13th Blumhouse flick, Freaky would hit it out of the park for me. It’s clever, cute, filled with gore, and features a ridiculously validating car scene that is sure to hit home for anyone who has ever been made to feel like the way they love is “freaky.” It is a crime that Christopher Landon isn’t cranking out new movies left and right, because he’s more than proven that he’s one of the freshest voices in horror.
I’m fully blaming fellow What to Watch writer Leigh Monson for putting this film on my radar and knowing exactly how to make me smile. The newest animated feature from Cartoon Saloon is a stunning storybook folktale come to life about dismantling Puritanical governments, disobeying orders in the name of the greater good, and celebrating the wild nature deep within us all. If someone could point me to my local chapter of “cute fat women who are secretly wolves,” so I can join, it would be greatly appreciated.
3. Birds of Prey
One of the last films available to be safely seen in theatres, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is easily one of the best “super” movies ever made. BoP boasts the most fun action sequences of the year, a pitch-perfect soundtrack, a kaleidoscope of visual seduction, and a moment of food porn starring an egg sandwich that puts all of those Tasty videos of meals you’ll never make to shame. I admittedly have a sordid relationship with comic book films and the fandom that surrounds it, but I’ve always loved all things Batman. BoP is the first time I’ve felt acknowledged and appreciated by this world, and I will defend this film from anyone who dares try and badmouth it.
2. Promising Young Woman
I would lay down my life for Carey Mulligan’s Cassie Thomas. There are moments where I legitimately had to stop and catch my breath, because Promising Young Woman taps into a very specific emotion that doesn’t get processed very often, and yes, I do talk to my therapist about this every week thankyouverymuch. It’s easily the most difficult movie I’ve watched all year, and yet one that has offered me both a great deal of strength and peace. Emerald Fennell, in this writer’s opinion, has made a masterpiece. From the perspective of the sisterhood of Nina Fisher that I am unfortunately a member of, I am so appreciative of this film’s existence.
If someone were to have taken all of the things I loved and fed it through Dr. Brundle’s machine, the grotesque and beautiful result would look a lot like Spontaneous. Dropped on VOD with little fanfare, Spontaneous has been surviving mostly by word of mouth...which includes my screaming about it on Twitter every chance I get. The film is about teenagers dealing with an epidemic where they spontaneously combust without any rhyme or reason as to why; juggling both the overwhelming fear of possibly exploding into a blood volcano, and massive amounts of survivor’s guilt when they don’t. It’s a movie that has not left my mind since watching it for the first time, and has easily become an all-time favorite. I love all of the films on this list, but Spontaneous is truly something special and deserves far more attention than it's been given.
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